Shaffer

Shaffer: Two years, man still waiting for police apology

Staff WriterFebruary 27, 2012 

— Two years ago, Kurt Benrud got a full-body pat-down from the Raleigh police while standing spread-eagled against his car at night.

One of the officers who stopped him put his hands down Benrud's pockets, pulled out his wallet and looked through it, then threw the rest of Benrud's things on the ground.

The other combed through the car, collected everything inside and piled it in the driver's seat. Benrud hadn't given permission or been asked.

His offense that night was a busted headlight and an expired tag. Later, he said, police told him he'd been driving around Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard at night, a part of town that justified taking precautions. Also, he had an empty Diet Pepsi can in the car, which an officer suspected might be alcohol.

When the search was finished, police told Benrud they'd cut him a break. They called him "boss," and drove away. But as Benrud collected himself on the side of the road, clearing the junk off his seat, he didn't feel so lucky. He'd rather have a citation for the headlight and tag than an officer's hands all over him.

So Benrud, now 59, mounted a two-year campaign for an apology, which finally bore fruit this week when Chief Harry Dolan's office called to set up an appointment.

But before that happened, Benrud went through a police sergeant, a police captain and a police major along with City Manager Russell Allen. He remained unsatisfied with the answers he got.

Twice, Benrud said, he was told that filing a complaint would be a big hassle. But he sent one anyway, 29 pages long.

Six times, he said, he called Dolan's office requesting a meeting. It never happened.

So on Tuesday, he put on a coat and tie and strode to the lectern set up for public comments in City Hall, where he addressed Mayor Nancy McFarlane, the City Council and Allen.

Tell me why I deserved this treatment, he said, or say you're sorry.

No grudge against police

Let me stop for a minute and say I'm not writing this to indict the Raleigh Police Department, even though I'm sure some people will see it that way. I know how many good people wear the badge.

Last fall, I got pulled over for an expired tag and inspection on South Saunders Street. I explained that I was literally driving to an inspection station when I got pulled over, which was true, but must have sounded like an absurd lie.

The officer politely told me that he'd have to write me a citation, but if I fixed the tags quickly, a magistrate would dismiss the charge. I did. He did. No problem.

Here's another story: About a year ago, somebody stole my next-door neighbor's scooter off his front porch. Not only did an officer arrive within minutes, he quickly found the scooter in a nearby cemetery, where the thieves had torn off its front panel in a futile attempt to hot-wire it. After that, two officers spent more than an hour taking fingerprints off every inch of the stolen scooter, standing in a dark cemetery. Pretty nice of them, I thought.

So I don't have any ax to grind here. I'm not angry at the police.

Rather, I'm impressed by the relentlessness of somebody who feels like he's been victimized by people in power, who persists in the beautiful delusion that somebody, somewhere, gives a damn.

I'm pretty sure I'd have given up after the second phone call, and for sure after the 29-page letter.

You think maybe Benrud is a rabble-rouser.

But I don't see that, either. He owns and manages the Circus Family Restaurant on East Chatham Street in Cary. He performs in community theater. He walks around quoting from "King Lear." On the night he got stopped, he'd been performing a play for inmates at Wake Correctional Center.

Benrud used to have long gray hair and a pointed beard, which I suggested might have triggered a stereotype and caused police to ask him - twice - if he had drugs hidden in the car.

But among all the explanations Benrud heard, nobody offered that one. At any rate, he lost all of that hair when he shaved his head bald to benefit the St. Baldrick's Foundation - a fundraiser for children's cancer research.

Benrud has a bad right leg and sometimes walks with a cane. When an officer told him to exit the vehicle, he reached down to help his leg out of the car. Later, a sergeant explained how that movement could be interpreted as a "furtive gesture."

The search for honesty

But all he wanted when he spoke before council members - two of whom, incidentally, have been pulled over for expired tags - he just wanted some honesty.

"I'm sure that every one of you is civilized enough that if you accidentally stepped on my foot, you would apologize," Benrud said.

He spoke far beyond his allotted time, and Allen told the council that the matter had been thoroughly investigated and the officers had been both interviewed and counseled. He said Benrud had been told that "if he did feel insulted, we certainly were apologetic."

The "if" stuck in Benrud's ear. It sounded like a back-handed way of saying he'd been overreacting, as if ordinary people wouldn't mind being patted down.

He left City Hall and went home to fire off more emails to officialdom. On Thursday, he said, Dolan's office called, leaving a voice mail message. He has no idea what the police chief might want to say.

But he has waited two years to hear just one word.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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